19: This Month in Black History- May Day

Lucy Gomez Parsons, Albert Parsons, and May Day

May Day

by Dr. Lisa Brock (editorial support from Dr. Regina Stevens-Truss)

Did you know that May Day, typically celebrated on May 1st, is not just an old European tradition where kids dance around a maypole, nor is it a radical holiday that occurs only in socialist countries, but is the original “Labor Day” in the United States? Did you know that May Day began in Chicago on May 1, 1886 by “Chicago unionists, reformers, socialists, anarchists, and ordinary workers [who] combined to make the city the center of the national movement for an eight-hour [work] day?” If you knew that, kudos to you. Did you also know that one of the leaders of the movement was Lucy Gomez Parsons, a Black woman of indigenous and Mexican lineage?

This month’s 19 Story is her story and the story of May Day.

Lucy Gomez Parsons was born in Texas around 1853; her parents were likely enslaved. Because of her triple heritage, she sometimes claimed to be Mexican or Indian, depending on the circumstances of oppression she found herself in at any given time. Around 1870, she met and married Albert Parsons who was white, and together they were politically active during the time of Reconstruction (1865-1877), working to register Black people to vote in Texas. Their political action, however, made them targets, as their lives were often threatened. Following Albert getting shot in the leg, they decided to escape to Chicago where their marriage, while frowned upon, would at least be legal, and where they felt they could continue their political work.

The 1870s in Chicago were highly charged times, as was true in many of America’s northern cities, where European, African-American, and Latinx immigrants migrated to looking for work and a better life. What they found, however, was horrendous working conditions, such as those of the meat packing industry depicted in Upton Sinclair’s classic 1907 novel, The Jungle and Bill Dukes 1984 film, The Killing Floor.

When Lucy and Albert arrived in Chicago in 1873, an economic depression was underway. Much like the Great Depression of the 1930s, masses of people were being laid off pushing wages down. Albert, though, was fortunate, and managed to get a job as a printer at the Chicago Times newspaper. Lucy, along with a friend, Lizzy Swank, opened a Dress Shop.

Now, understand that the eight-hour day/forty-hour work week became Federal law in the US in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act. But the struggle for this, was real and slow. For example, on May 1, 1867, the Illinois legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hours workday, and on May 19, 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hours workday for government workers. However, private industries refused to comply, and neither the state nor the federal government were making them.

As the workers’ movement brewed for a decade, it’s been said that Lucy and Albert held meetings in the Dress Shop, which is believed to have led to Albert’s firing and his being blacklisted as a printer. At this time, industrial workers were fighting for higher wages and better working conditions. In 1877, the Baltimore-Ohio Railroad, one of the largest companies in the country, cut the wages of their workers, for which a strike ensued with solidarity strikes occurring all over the country. New Unions were created during this time, and Lucy emerged as a leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

Lucy was considered by some to be “dangerous” at this time as she wrote articles in The Alarm, published weekly by the International Worker’s People’s Association (IWPA) with the aim of advocating for direct action by people if needed to defend workers’ rights – a publication Lucy and Albert helped found in 1883.

On May 1, 1886 a day of action was planned – workers demanded an eight-hours work day with no cut in pay, and as you can guess, this was not received well by companies. Thus, on May 1, 1886, 350,000 workers across the nation walked off their jobs to participate in the largest mass general strike in US history; forty thousand workers struck in Chicago, alone, creating a whirlwind of workers’ activity, which inspired workers all over the world. Two days later, on May 3rd, 1886, the McCormick Harvest workers went on strike, joining the movement. With so many workers on strike, industries put pressure on City and State governments to do something. So, police were unleashed, with them firing into crowds of striking workers. A bomb was thrown into a crowd who was meeting at the Haymarket Square in Chicago killing one policeman. Riots broke out and both strikers and police were hurt. In the days that followed, city authorities, in response, raided the homes of leaders, many of whom had not even been at Haymarket Square, and they shut down newspapers. Police were looking for Albert and other strike leaders, many of whom went into hiding; some were found and some turned themselves in. In October, 1887, Albert and four other movement leaders were put on trial. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, and on November 11, 1887, Albert and the others were hung.

Between May 1, 1886 and October, 1887, you can imagine that Lucy, who was then under constant surveillance and harassment, tried to save her husband. As she was not to be silenced, she traveled the country to raise awareness of what was happening. She was often jailed and beaten in cities through which she traveled. In fact, she and her two children were jailed to “avoid trouble” after they visited Albert in jail for the last time.

Lucy Gomez Parsons, a Black woman, lived just long enough to see the eight-hours day/forty-hours week become a reality. She remained politically active until she died at the age of 89 in what the authorities said was an accidental fire at her house in Chicago on March 7, 1942. Sadly, her library of 1500 books, on sex, socialism and anarchy, which according to the FBI survived the fire, mysteriously disappeared.

Because of the work of Lucy Gomez Parsons and many others, the US Federal government negotiated with labor unions for Labor Day to be observed in September instead of May – ironically, the US is the only country that celebrates Labor Day on a day other than May 1st.

And if you didn’t know – now you know! Happy Labor Day month.

Regina Stevens-Truss, Director of the HHMI Inclusive Excellence grant & Professor of Chemistry
Lisa Brock, retired, ACSJL Academic Director & Professor of History